Why comfort isn't always the answer for sad children

Space for the overly sensitive child
Space for the overly sensitive child Photo: Getty

My seven-year-old daughter is quite the sensitive child. She gets easily upset, incredibly emotional, and needs a lot of assistance when it comes to regulating her emotions. Recently, after telling her off for inappropriate behaviour she'd engaged in, I found her laying on the couch and crying quietly to herself. Rather than forcing her to talk about it, I gave her the chance to sit with her emotions. I said, “I know that you're feeling sad and I'm here for you. If you decide to talk about it, I'm here.” Within several minutes, she had regained her composure and was back to her usual self. Rather than rushing to her aid, I gave her the chance to feel and regulate her own emotions. As parents, it's difficult to resist the urge to solve everything for our children, but maybe the solution lies in letting them solve problems on their own.

The development of self-regulation

As adults, we know that having the ability to self-regulate our emotions effectively can have a positive impact on our personal and professional lives. But for young children, learning the skill of self-regulation is not so simple.

Dr. Helen Street, a Western Australian author, academic and social psychologist, explains that there are many reasons why young children struggle to self-regulate their emotions.

“Emotional self-regulation is a combination of biological development; social and emotional development and skill acquisition,” says Dr. Street. 

“As adults, we self-regulate our emotions effectively when our brains have matured and when we have learnt sufficient skills to be able to act effectively in a social world.”

“Unlike adults, children's brains are still growing and developing (all the way to their mid-twenties). As such, they simply do not have the same ability to regulate their emotions that we do.”

Dr. Street emphasises that as young children are very egocentric, this hinders their ability to self-regulate. “Emotional self-regulation is a skill that has to be learnt along with an increased understanding of the relationship between self and others.”

“If young children are upset, they act upset. It takes time and maturity to realise that others' feelings are important and that your behaviour impacts on the way others feel.”

The benefits of giving children space

Given that young children are still learning to self-regulate their emotions, it is vital that we give them the opportunity to manage their own feelings.

If your child is feeling a bit down in the dumps, don't be in such a rush to fix their problems. Sometimes what children need more than anything is a bit of space.

“Children can benefit enormously by being given the opportunity to embrace and live with a full plethora of emotions and feelings,” Dr. Street says.

“It is important that they know it is fine to feel sad sometimes, just as it is fine to feel happy, angry, frustrated or excited.

Jodie Benveniste, psychologist and director of Parent WellBeing, says that giving children a chance to cope with their own feelings helps to build emotional intelligence. “It helps children to reflect upon and better understand their emotions,” says Benveniste.

“If children can learn how to identify when they're sad and know how to manage it, then they are developing emotional intelligence. This helps to not be overwhelmed by the emotion, and instead to get some perspective on it. It also helps to digest the emotion rather than ignore it.”

Clinical psychologist, Sally-Anne McCormack, says giving children time to themselves is a good thing as long as we emphasise that we are still there for them. “We need to empower children by letting them feel their emotions by themselves, but letting them know repeatedly that we are available.”

How to give children the space they need

McCormack says that the first step in giving a young child space is to acknowledge how they feel and to name their feelings.

For example, “I can see that you're really sad at the moment, I'm going to leave you be. And then when you're ready, if you want to come and talk to me, I'm going to be here for you.”

Following such an approach shows your child that you are there for them, but you're not pressuring them to talk either. If they've gone to their room, you could pop in after 30 minutes and say, “Remember, if you need to talk, I'm here for you.”

However, if you feel that their reaction to whatever has happened or what you think has gone on is concerning, it may be time to intervene.

McCormack says that if there's been a noticeable change in your child's behaviour, and their level of upset has remained unchanged for several days, there could be a bigger problem at hand.

If your child does decide they are ready to talk, though, try to strike a balance between being there and giving them space.

Dr. Street says, “Most of the time, children simply want to know that you are on their side and that you have some understanding of who they are and how they feel. As such, listening can be far more helpful than trying to offer advice or solutions.”

Above all else, remember to be compassionate, patient and non-judgemental.

You don't need to fix everything for your children. You just need to provide them with the right opportunities and confidence, so they believe they can fix problems themselves.

Thuy Yau is a freelance writer. She is passionate about raising happy and confident children. You can follow Thuy on Twitter, join her on Facebook, or read her personal development blog at Inside a Mother's Mind.